Why language matters when talking about bike and car crashes

leah death screen
Screen capture CBS News

27-year-old Leah Sylvain died last week after an interaction with a fuel truck in Brooklyn. I am trying to use a neutral word there, because two versions of a single article by Ilana Gold of CBS News in New York show how much words do matter. On the day of the accident, Gold apparently spoke with investigators and wrote up her coverage with the headline and intro:

Bicyclist Dies After Slamming Into Fuel Truck In Brooklyn
A woman riding her bike to work was killed after she slammed into a fuel truck Tuesday morning in Brooklyn.

You can see the original as I captured it on Instapaper here.

But if you look today at the same article it reads:

Driver Facing Charges As Fuel Truck Strikes, Kills Bicyclist In Brooklyn
A woman riding her bike to work was killed after she was struck by a fuel truck Tuesday morning in Brooklyn.

The original article described the crash one way:

Police said 27-year-old Leah Sylvain was in the bike lane heading north on Evergreen Avenue and collided with the truck — which was going in the same direction — as it turned left at the intersection onto Hart Street. The truck didn’t have a stop sign, CBS2’s Ilana Gold reported. Investigators told CBS2 that Sylvain slammed into the back of the truck and got pulled underneath. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Witnesses told Gold the bicyclist was distracted on her cell phone.

The updated article says it differently:

Police said she was in the bike lane heading north on Evergreen Avenue and was struck by the truck — which was going in the same direction — as it turned left at the intersection onto Hart Street. Investigators told CBS2 that Sylvain got pulled underneath the truck. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital. Authorities said Sylvain had the right-of-way when she was hit.

Note that there is no reference to the cell phone anymore.

If you read the original article, you would believe that the truck made a legal turn (it did not have a stop sign) and the cyclist looking at her cell phone rode right into the back of the truck, and many people would say that’s what you get for looking at your phone when you ride a bike.

However the updated article changes the spin and the author implies that the driver is at fault, given that the article now notes that “The 52-year-old truck driver, Joseph Cherry, was taken into custody on several charges, including failure to yield.”



Why are they so different? Writer and and bike activist Doug Gordon notes that the police have a long history of blaming victims. In a fascinating exchange with Ilana Gold of CBS (which I saw at the time but much of which as been deleted), Doug asks:


Words really do matter; it is like there are two completely different stories here. One blames the victim; the other the driver. The only fact that seems to be common to both is that Leah Sylvain is dead.

Tags: Bike-Friendly World | New York City

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